Blazing Combat
Editor and Writer: Archie Goodwin
Original Publisher: Warren Publishing (1965-66)
Re-published by Fantagraphics Books

Blazing Combat was a war anthology edited and written by Archie Goodwin in collaboration with a dozen artists. It was also a commercial flop back in the sixties, getting canceled after only four issues. According to its publisher, James Warren, the tepid sales were due to politics. The book earned the ire of comic distributors (many of whom were veterans) for its perceived anti-war bias and they refused to sell it. It was outright banned from stores on military bases, meaning that active servicemen (who made up a sizable share of the market for war comics) could not buy it.

But authoritarian politics and government censorship are no match for comic book nostalgia. Decades later, Blazing Combat was resurrected by Fantagraphics, and it’s not hard to see why. Forget the stories or the politics; the list of artists who worked on this title is an aging fanboy’s wet dream. Frank Frazetta (on covers), Wally Wood, John Severin, Alex Toth, Gene Colan. And these artists brought their “A” game. As mainstream comic art goes, few books look as good as Blazing Combat.

However, a reader can’t appreciate the art without eventually addressing the subject matter. Did this book deserve its reputation as an anti-war comic? To a limited degree, yes. The comic clearly did not fit the standard mold of the male adventure genre. There are no two-fisted heroes swaggering over a mountain of enemy corpses. Instead, most of the short stories commented on the brutality and absurdity of war.

One example is “Holding Action,” by Archie Goodwin and John Severin (panels from this story were used as the cover for the Blazing Combat trade paperback). Set in the last months of the Korean War, the plot depicts the psychological descent of a new recruit, Private Stewart, as he faces several terrifying raids by the Chinese.

By John Severin

I particularly like the transition of emotions across Private Stewart’s face. After several battles, Stewart becomes obsessed with being prepared for the next attack, to the point where he will no longer leave his trench, even after the ceasefire is formally declared.

The entire story is only seven pages long, and the characters are as thin as the paper they appear on. But the tale isn’t about the characters, it’s about a simple message: fear and violence breeds neurotic behavior. And it delivers this message without becoming preachy.

Arguably the most famous story in Blazing Combat, and the one that got it banned from military bases, was “Landscape,” by Archie Goodwin and Joe Orlando. The story chronicles the miseries that befall an aged rice farmer in rural Vietnam during the early 1960s.  He’s an unassuming peasant who just wants to be left alone so that he and his family can tend their crops. But war comes to his village, first in the form of the Vietcong, who murder everyone connected to the South Vietnamese government.

By Joe Orlando

Then comes the U.S. Green Berets, sent to drive the Vietcong from the village. They kill the farmer’s son, who had enthusiastically, and foolishly, joined the rebels.

Then the Vietcong counterattack and destroy the village, and the farmer’s wife is killed. Left without a home or a family, the farmer becomes fixated on the only thing left to him – his rice paddy. But the South Vietnamese army comes to reclaim the village, and they burn the rice paddies with flamethrowers to kill the guerrillas who are hiding there. The old farmer attempts to stop them, but he is shot and killed in the crossfire.

It’s about as heavy-handed a tale as one can imagine. But there’s an element of truth there: 20th century wars inflicted their heaviest casualties on civilians rather than combatants. And wars rarely seem glorious or exciting to the unarmed masses caught in the middle.

Blazing Combat can be described as an anti-war comic, but only to a limited extent. Whatever Archie Goodwin’s feelings on the matter, war is the selling point of this comic. After all, the title is BLAZING Combat, not Oh, The Humanity Combat. And each issue has a Combat Quiz, which tests and rewards the readers’ knowledge of useless military trivia. And the covers were drawn by Frank Frazetta, who apparently did not get the memo that war isn’t cool.

By Frank Frazetta

What was that I said about two-fisted heroes on a mountain of corpses?

Francois Truffaut once declared that there was no such thing as an anti-war film. His point was that, regardless of the filmmakers’ intent, war films glamorized combat because violence is inherently exciting. This contradiction is evident in quite a few of the stories in Blazing Combat, particularly “Lone Hawk,” by Archie Goodwin and Alex Toth. The story is a short biography of Billy Bishop, a Canadian fighter ace from World War I.

By Alex Toth (who also did the lovely lettering)

The biography lists Bishop’s many victories in battle, but juxtaposed to those accomplishments are the deaths of other famous fighter aces, including Albert Ball and Baron von Richthofen. The bio ends by noting that the most unique aspect of Bishop’s career wasn’t the number of planes he shot down, but that he survived the war, unlike so many of his peers. There is a clear anti-war message in emphasizing the high casualty rates of fighter pilots. And yet the message is hard to care about when Toth’s art is constantly glorifying the excitement and danger of aerial combat.

And on the very first page, Goodwin begins the comic with this overripe narration: “The skies of Europe are Valhalla for the heroes who are dying in flames only to be replaced by new champions – aces all…” Thor couldn’t have said it better himself.

But even when the stories avoid glamorizing combat, they are still problematic. As I mentioned above, war is the selling point. Even if readers, writers, and artists all considered themselves to be anti-war politically, they’re interested in war as a subject, and they presumably still want to be entertained by their comics. Even a story as ardently anti-war as “Landscape” relies on conflict for meaning and relevance. The reader can wallow in the tragedy, the pointlessness, the evil. They pat themselves on the back when their political values are affirmed, and they shake their head knowingly at man’s inhumanity. But anti-war stories are still just stories, and like all stories based on real events, they have a tendency to turn other people’s tragedy into our entertainment.

Tags: , , , , ,